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Pre-hydrate calves for optimal performance

Rose Keunen for Progressive Dairyman Published on 15 January 2018

Pre-hydrating calves is not a regular farm management practice; however, it is commonly known among many athletes. An athlete’s main goal is to avoid dehydration during a sporting event because dehydration has been proven to negatively impact performance.

Since humans cannot store extensive quantities of fluids, the balancing act of fluid and nutrition intake prior to an event becomes extremely important. So how can this principle be applied to newborn calves?



At Henro Dairy Farms, with 460 Holstein cows and 440 youngstock, we have implemented calf-feeding protocols that emphasize pre-hydrating calves along with monitoring clinical parameters and changes in calf behaviour. The mortality rate from live birth to 2 years old is around 2 percent, and only one to two calves per year will receive an IV treatment.

Most calf illnesses are complicated by dehydration. A proactive approach of pre-hydrating calves will minimize the impact of dehydration and will contribute to a faster recovery and lower antibiotic use. At Henro Dairy, the calf-feeding protocols highlight the timing, amount and nutrition intake of all liquid feedings (colostrum, transitional milk, pasteurized whole milk and electrolytes) prior to the health event.


The success of colostrum feeding is based on five components: timing, quantity, quality, cleanliness and temperature.

  • Timing: Calves are most likely to drink colostrum and absorb the maximum amount of immunoglobulins in the first two hours of life. The esophageal feeder is only used after three natural attempts (interval of 30 minutes) at colostrum feeding. We find it is worthwhile to spend the time to stimulate the calf to drink.

  • Quantity: The calf will be fed approximately 3 litres within the first two hours, followed with another 3 litres of first colostrum six to eight hours later. We feel feeding more colostrum (over 3 litres) in the first feeding may trigger a reduced feed intake in the second or third feeding. It’s not only important to provide the calf with antibodies through colostrum but also to give adequate nutrient load on the first day.

  • Quality: The quality of colostrum can be measured with a Brix refractometer. However, reviewing additional health records (i.e., chronic mastitis, weight loss) from the dam and the physical appearance of strip yields are extremely important to evaluate the quality of the colostrum and the decision to use it for the calf.

    Henro Dairy will only harvest a maximum of 10 litres of first colostrum to prevent dilutional effect because the concentration of immunoglobulins in colostrum is unknown at time of harvesting.

  • Cleanliness: It is a big challenge to keep the bacteria count and coliform count low in colostrum in order to reduce exposure to pathogens. Therefore, keeping udders, teats, storage containers, and milking and calf-feeding equipment clean and disinfected is critical.

  • Temperature: Store colostrum in a refrigerator or freezer if it is not used immediately. Label each container with the number of the dam and the number of the milking. The colostrum should not be heated above 60ºC to avoid damaging the antibodies. The serving temperature should be consistent at 38ºC.

Transitional milk

Transitional milk is described as the second and third milking of a fresh cow, which is markedly higher in solids, fat, protein, vitamins, immunoglobulins and lower in lactose than normal milk (Table 1).

Typical analysis of coloctrum, transitional milk and whole milk form Holsteins


At Henro Dairy, all calves will receive four feedings (two days) of transitional milk after receiving two feedings of first colostrum.

The protein and fat are a good energy source and stimulate growth. The immunoglobulins, vitamins and minerals will boost the overall calf health. The lower concentration of lactose will reduce the chance of diarrhea in newborn calves. The use of transitional milk mimics natural nursing.

Further, the change from colostrum to transitional milk and finally pasteurized whole milk is done in a gradual way. We believe the value of transitional milk for the overall calf health is underestimated, and transitional milk should be provided.

Electrolytes in addition to pasteurized whole milk

On day four, calves will receive two servings (3.25 litres each) of pasteurized whole milk (38ºC) at 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. for the younger calves under 2.5 weeks old. In addition, Henro Dairy may add 2 litres of electrolytes at 11:30 a.m. based on the judgement call made during the morning feeding.

The timing of introducing electrolyte is crucial. When setting out the bottles in the single-calf hutches, every calf will be examined for certain clinical parameters. These clinical parameters are nasal discharge, ocular discharge, ear position, coughing, feces, navel, temperature and, most importantly, calf behaviour. If any abnormalities are noticed, electrolytes will be given to the calf at lunch and repeated for the next few days.

The timing for introducing electrolytes at Henro Dairy is most often based on changes in calf behaviour. The early signs of change in calf behaviour are noticeable long before the calf gets sick.


The early signs are not looking out the calf hutch at feeding time, playing with the nipple before drinking, intermittent drinking, not finishing the bottle, lying down right away after finishing the bottle and not being fully engaged in barn activities after feeding.

When electrolytes are introduced to the calf at time of change in calf behaviour before the clinical disease occurs, it is referred to as pre-hydrating. At that time, the calf’s metabolism is still good, and the intestines absorb the salts and water better. Further, the calf will drink all of the electrolytes.

If the electrolytes are provided early enough, and a health event (i.e., scours, respiratory disease) occurs a couple days later, the calf may drink less milk but will continue to drink the electrolytes. The impact of dehydration during a health event will be minimized, and the calf will recover faster and will receive less antibiotics. The mortality and morbidity rate for the calves will be lower.

The daily examination of calves on robot farms for the clinical parameters requires the same amount of time as for calves in single pens. However, the change in calf behaviour is more difficult to diagnose with robot feeding, and a daily review of all the digital data (different per brand) and checkup in the group pens is necessary to diagnose the early signs of change in behaviour.

To reach outstanding calf performances, it’s extremely important to provide newborn calves with a balanced diet of fluid and nutrition to prepare them for the challenges in the early days and weeks of life. This will also include vigilance in observing changes in calf behaviour to implement pre-hydration.  end mark

Rose Keunen
  • Rose Keunen

  • Dairy Producer
  • Henro Dairy Farms Strathroy, Ontario

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